- It Was Meant to
Be: Part One
(Warsaw, Poland, April 1917 - November, 1939)
Dedicated to our
mother's brothers and sisters:
Part One - "At the Mercy of Our Luck"
On April 14, 2008, the original manuscript of "Beshert - It
Was Meant To Be" was added to the permanent archival collection of the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D C.
© Written in 1976 by Roma Talasiewicz-Eibuszyc
is night. I sit by the window waiting for the pills to take
effect and I think of my mother and her pain, and her bravery.
I remember that Friday, so many years ago when the dark cloud descended on our little family. I was going with mother, as I usually did after school to the open market to do our big shopping for the week. It is difficult to explain but she looked different that afternoon. I told her that my teacher made an example of my homework in Polish class again today and she nodded and looked away as though she had barely heard me. Her face was pale and drawn as she waited for me to finish my afternoon snack of tea and a slice of bread and butter. Sometimes I think that if I had said something, anything about my concern that day I might have been able to change the course of events that were to follow. That is the emotional me talking. The intellectual part of me says that a ten year old girl could not have offered to go to the busy market alone, or even had enough courage to suggest we stay home.
That Friday she did not rush through the aisles, grabbing the vegetables and smelling the fresh produce she usually did. She walked slowly, as if in another world, haphazardly put things in our baskets with little interest. As we walked back home I remember thinking, for no real reason other than a sense of gloom, that I might never do this with my mother again.
As soon as we got home mother lay down and fell asleep. As this was the beginning of Shabbat we didn’t know what to think. We lit a candle at sundown and ate whatever was available without cooking. We waited in vain for mother to wake up.
The next morning mother’s left hand and leg were paralyzed. Adek ran to bring a doctor. He came, quickly examined her and said that a vein had burst in mother’s brain. Mother had suffered a stroke. She was unconscious when the ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital. The doctor was still with us as we watched the stretcher slide into the ambulance. The kindly doctor’s face was so serious. I can still hear his words as another great tragedy made its way into our lives again. “There is nothing I can do for your mother.”
As mother was considered to be in critical condition, the Jewish Hospital allowed one of us to be with her every day in the afternoon. From early morning until after lunch, the doctors made their rounds. Some of them were Jewish, some were not but I thought I could see the sympathy in all their eyes when they looked at my relatively young mother and then at us. Since families of the critically ill could visit, Andza left work early every day to take care of mother at the hospital. On Sundays the six of us stood around her bed helplessly. She just lay there, unable to move. All I could do was hold her hand and cry.
Our precious little home, our lives fell apart. We stopped smiling. Most times we each sat in our own corner with our heads down. The only sound was that of muffled sobs. It was summer but in the overwhelmingly sudden situation I was cold all the time. We were soon disheveled-looking. For two weeks we ate only bread and drank tea. I know that we were all secretly hoping that mother’s health would improve. We were waiting for a miracle. Not only did the miracle not come, but mother’s condition got worse. From being immobile and on her back she developed open wounds, and because she was not able to call for help, some nights she lay in her own urine. Although the hospital did not have enough staff, they were strict about not letting families come in to help at night. When he realized that her constant moaning was the result of the pain from her open wounds, Adek made the decision to bring mother home.
The ambulance people carried mother up the steps on a stretcher. Although her overall condition was the same, with no movement or words, her presence, in our home eased my heart, at least for a while.
Our immediate concern was to heal mother’s infected bedsores. Adek bought a large rubber tube that mother could lay on so that her sores would be exposed to the air. Andza washed the sores daily and dried them with powder. After three weeks mother’s sores healed, and I was able to breath again.
Andza, who was sixteen years old then quit her job and stayed home to spoon-feed mother three times a day and give her the medicines that kept her alive. The money my other siblings were earning went to keeping mother comfortable and to buy those precious pills. The doctor put mother on a special diet because everything she ate had to be easily digested. She was allowed only bread that was made with eggs and milk, fresh milk and kefir. For the first time there were bananas and oranges in our room. She also had to drink special herbal teas that could only be purchased at a pharmacy.
It didn’t take long for my little ten-year-old mind to register that I no longer had a mother. I can not put into words what an earth-shattering loss I suffered with this realization. Although mother was physically there in the bed, and as I had to take care of myself in all ways, I soon came to see that I had lost my mother. My brothers and sisters could not replace her. They could not give me the motherly love I craved. Most girls have a special bond with their mothers; mine was beyond special, and it was broken abruptly and forever. I wanted so much to have her hug me just once, to say a few words of comfort. Over and over I sat on her bed, kissed her and begged her to talk to me. She didn’t say a word.
were poor again although a doctor was sent from the hospital for free
to examine mother every week. Dr. Kozlowski was a tall, Polish
army doctor. All the neighbors were frightened as he walked through the
courtyard dressed in his uniform. A long sword, shining like silver
hung from his side. Dr. Kozlowski was a compassionate man. My
brother heard that he worked at the Jewish hospital because he had a
heart. Each time he’d look at mother on her bed, then at the rest
of us gathered at the other end of the room, he’d say, “I really want
to save your mother, but there is nothing I can do. There are no
medications to reverse her condition.”
care of mother left Andza totally overwhelmed. The job was so
exhausting for her she could do nothing else. Everything around
us was neglected. As cooking and washing properly were out of the
question, I was dirty and hungry most of the
Adek who made the next big decision. Pola, who was twenty years
old, would now take care of mother and the chores. Andza went
back to work. It was a smart decision as it was immediately
apparent that Pola was better equipped for the job. She was
able to take care of mother, cook for all of us, do the washing and
keep the room clean. My job was to help Pola after school. I
washed dishes, took out the garbage and washed clothes; I did
everything that Pola asked me to do.
home my life and future seemed dark and hopeless. It was only during
school hours that I found myself able to escape my awful reality.
As a result I always was at the top of my class even with mother lying
silent and paralyzed back in our room. I learned without
having my own books. I borrowed what I needed from my classmates.
I didn’t even have a schoolbag for my notebooks. One day Andza
who was a seamstress greeted me after school with one she made for me
out of fabric. It was a wonderful surprise; a colorful bag to
carry my notebooks, dry roll and the five groszy I needed to buy a sour
at home consisted of soup with an occasional piece of meat. Pola
divided the meat among my older, working siblings. I got the
bone. I remember licking that bone and trying to feel
grateful. I never did ask for anything more. I never
complained. I chose to be happy with what I had.
died on a Thursday in May. I was fourteen years old. My
brothers and sisters did not go to work the day before. We did
not sleep that night. My brother went to get the doctor who
gave mother her one last injection. Adek sat at her bedside the
whole night while the rest of us sat in a corner of the room.
was five o’clock in the morning. The door to our room was open. The
kerosene lamp threw threatening shadows on the walls behind mother’s
bed. I held my breath as strange black cat with blue eyes slinked
into the room and ran under mother’s bed. I wanted to
scream but I couldn’t. It was at just that moment that mother
closed her eyes and stopped breathing. She died in Adek’s arms.
was the only one who saw the black cat. It was not my
imagination. My mind shut down as soon as I realized that mother had
just died and I never told anyone what I saw. I was sure no one
would believe me. However, even now I can see that onerous sign
as vividly as if it happened yesterday. I know in my heart that
it was really the angel of death, in another form come to take my
unbelievable grief overwhelmed us. According to the Jewish
tradition mother’s body was laid on the floor with her feet toward the
door. Since it was Friday, we had until twelve noon to make the
funeral arrangements. Adek took care of everything. All I
remember is that I cried and cried, and that a woman came to our room
to sew a white cotton burial shroud. During the two hours that it
took her, she talked to us about how G-d gives and how G-d takes.
She said, “G-d comes and you have to go to a place where you forever
rest”. She also said, “Children, don’t cry, soon a messiah will come,
riding on a white horse and all the dead will come to life.” Her
attempts at reassuring us did not work at all. While we were, of
course, in the midst of a terrible, personal tragedy, we had also grown
somewhat more secular in the four years mother had been ill. We
certainly listened. What the woman had to say surely reflected
the strong faith that most people still had back in those days.
images of mother’s funeral will be etched in my mind forever.
Before twelve noon on that dark Friday in May, we all came downstairs,
single-file and dressed in black. Mother’s totally covered body
was placed in a black wooden casket. The wagon waiting for us in
the courtyard was covered in black fabric. There was an opening in the
back for the casket. The two horses pulling the wagon were also
covered in black. Only their eyes were visible. My two brothers
were the first to walk in the procession behind the wagon. After them
was Sala who was being supported by her closest friends. Then,
came Andza, also supported by her friends. Our next-door neighbor
walked on Pola’s side and I walked on her other side, holding my
brother and his children came to the funeral, as did mother’s sisters
and their children. They had in fact come from time to time when mother
was sick, bringing food and trying to comfort us. The truth was
that I was in such misery that it must have been impossible for them to
help me. I can hardly remember those times. I also know it must
be difficult to picture today to those reading this, but the heaviness,
the hopelessness in our room was such that people, even mother’s family
came and went like shadows. There was nothing anyone could do. They
left as quickly as they could while maintaining good manners.
walked for forty-five minutes to the cemetery. The horses pulled
the wagon slowly while funeral workers dressed in black walked on each
side. Everyone was praying as we moved along. Once we
got there mother was to be washed and dressed in a special building.
Here we had to wait depending on how many other people were being
buried on that day.
took two hours for mother’s body to be prepared. She was dressed all in
white, including white stockings and white cotton shoes. Her eyes
were covered with small ceramic pieces. The grave was lined with
wooden planks since the body was buried, according to Jewish tradition
without a casket. Covered with the white shroud that had been
sewed for her earlier that day, Mother was lowered into the ground,
Kaddish, the prayer for the dead was said over her grave.
I am back to writing but my thoughts are scattered. I need to grab hold
of them but it is difficult. Yesterday I touched on deep feelings and
emotions that I had hidden away for a very long time. It is
a good thing that paper has patience, and will wait.
the second time in my young life, black dirt covered my parent forever.
On the trip back home all I could think about was that I would find
mother still in her bed, that it would not be empty. After four
years of caring for her, there was no longer anyone to take care
of. It was a drastic transformation for which none of us was
prepared. We did not eat that day. My three sisters and I climbed
into one bed and stayed like that, mourning in sobs throughout
Saturday. Thankfully our brothers fared a little better than we
did. They took turns taking care of us, forcing us to at least
drink some tea. When Sunday arrived, again according to the
Jewish tradition, we started to sit Shiva. Shiva meant sitting on
low stools or in a crouching position for a whole week. Mirrors
were covered. The only light in our room that week came from a candle.
Family and neighbors came to pay their respects, and left.
that tragic week passed, my two brothers and two sisters went back to
work. I went back to school and Pola stayed home and took care of
us. A few weeks later I graduated from public school. The
year was 1931 and I was fourteen years old. My classmates came to
school on that last day with their parents. I came alone. My
siblings didn’t want to miss any more work and risk losing
their jobs. Pola rarely ventured out to public places. After six years
of school and one year of being home-schooled [during the first grade],
I graduated with a diploma and some small amount of satisfaction, but
that graduation day remained forever one of the saddest days in my
life. At the end of the ceremony I stood proudly with my
graduating class as we recited this poem:
“Life goes by quickly, like a stream runs the time,
In a year, in a day, in a minute, together we’ll be no more,
And our young years went by quickly into the past,
In our hears will remain a sadness, a void and an absence,
This is the last day of school; we will face many different roads,
Into the world we will go, taking our future into our hands”.
my life veered into a totally different direction. What I had
dreamed of throughout my childhood was suddenly unattainable. I had to
get a job.
was difficult to find a job in Warsaw in 1931. People got up as
early as four o’clock to get the morning paper and look in the
classified section for employment. At times as many as a hundred
people applied for one position. Sometimes after a few days a
newly hired worker was fired for no reason. Reasons were not
needed. The ugly truth at that time was that working people had
no rights. Rights seemed to belong only to rich capitalists.
my work at home, I carried dinner to the factory where Adek and Sala
worked. It broke my heart to watch how hard they worked in that
small clothing factory. Pola continued with all the cooking and the
house chores. Working with wool was difficult. Soon everything in our
room was covered with a layer of white wool dust. We did manage
to make good money, and so we persevered.
time, our situation at home improved even though mother’s death still
haunted our minds. I believe I was affected the most. Looking
back I see myself as a new flower with my petals just opening when a
devastating storm suddenly brakes the stem. I took orders from
Pola who was very strict and demanding. I did what ever she told
me to do and never once objected to her commands. This was my life and
this was how it had to be. There is no doubt that our lives were
a constant battle. All of us were fighting, struggling to just
survive in the best way we could.
don’t know exactly when the realization came about but in any case it
was suddenly clear. My destiny was to live a difficult existence.
Acceptance became my way of surviving in a world where hours and days
slipped away without notice. My older siblings and especially Pola now
made all the decisions about my life.
my work I didn’t even get spending money and for some reason I didn’t
dare ask. In the meantime I watched, as Pola went about doing strange
things for those outside our immediate family. At first it had to
do with our uncle Motel who was mother’s youngest brother. Motel, who
came to visit us during mother’s illness and often after she died, was
a divorced man with three school age children. He lived in the
Polish section of Warsaw, owned a factory and a store selling
fashionable ladies hats. He bragged about how he took care of his
children, how he cooked, washed and cleaned his home by himself.
came to our room every Sunday and Pola proceeded served him the nicest
dinner. As I said, this went on for many years from the
time of my mother’s illness and after her death. During those
times my dinner consisted of a bone instead of meat. I
remember the many times I would be playing out in the courtyard when I
saw my uncle running, not walking to our building. The first
time, I thought that something must be terribly wrong. I waited a
few minutes and went upstairs. To my surprise nothing terrible had
happened at all. There was Pola bending over Motel to serve him
an ample fish dinner. There was chicken soup with noodles,
compote and tea. My uncle was actually smacking his
lips. Thirty minutes later he thanked Pola and said he needed to
get back to his children. This routine went on for years. I
never said a word but the resentment built inside me. How Pola
could be treating Motel this way when the six of us just barely got by
and especially hen there were still many nights I went to bed hungry.
My siblings were at work when Motel came to dinner. They had no
idea this was happening. I started to wonder if perhaps our Uncle’s
dinner was served with just my sibling’s schedules in mind. I felt even
worse when Pola occasionally invited not just Motel but her friends as
well. She fed them, gave them shelter, and always for free. On
the one hand I heard the others say Pola had a very big heart and was
good at giving to others. On the other hand, this did not make
sense to me at all. There was no one to turn to, to talk to. In
my misery I resigned myself to the way things were.
must have been almost sixteen when I suddenly realized that even my
poorest friends had some coins in their pockets, even if only for a
small treat. Later as I looked back with some maturity, I saw there was
something else operating in my sad, motherless life. That
something was so alien, so covered up it took years for me to accept
that mother had protected me, even from my own siblings.
Education, as I noted earlier, was everything to mother and then to me.
Sevek did go to school until he was thirteen. As soon as mother
got sick he had to leave his education behind. I was able to stay in
school the longest and got the education none of my siblings got.
I wish I could say they were proud of me but in truth they did not
understand. I felt they were even resentful when they saw me
reading a book. There was a jealousy that seemed to be bound
together with the resentment, and that together made my life
miserable. From time-to-time I was given an old dress, a coat, or
a worn down pair of shoes. I was trapped in a depressing
situation that held no hope for a better future. Beshert -
It was Meant to Be is
published here, in a serialized
version, with the permission of Suzanna Eibuszyc. © Web site Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.
Beshert - It was Meant to Be is published here, in a serialized version, with the permission of Suzanna Eibuszyc.
© Web site Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.